Browsing tag: pet food

Pet food: what does the label tell you, and how much does it matter to your pet?

Do you ever wonder what actually goes into pet food? Everyone with a pet has to provide food for them every day, but most of us are unaware of the background to what we are feeding. That’s not to say that we don’t care about it: pet food manufacturers know that we want to do the best for our pets, so labelling and packaging tends to give a sense of wholesome ingredients and tastiness. But what’s going on behind the scenes?

There’s an anti-corporate trend in the modern online world, with an underlying emotion of distrust in big companies. While this may sometimes be justified, the truth is that most companies are just bigger versions of small businesses, doing their best to provide products and services in an efficient, effective way. Pet food companies are no different: while some pet owners may dislike the idea of mass produced pet food, it’s still the method that most pet owners use to feed their pets, and for the most part, it works very well. Pet food production is regulated by law to ensure that it’s safe and nutritious. Recent research showed that 70% of owners and 85% of vets agreed that commercially prepared pet food provides optimum nutrition. Almost 60% of owners and 95% vets would go as far as to say pets are living longer as a result of advanced nutrition. Of course there are individual animals that have special nutritional needs, just as some humans do. But for most pets, commercial pet food does a good job.

Pet food manufacturers produce products in line guidelines that are regularly reviewed by independent nutrition experts. There is also strict legislation governing what ingredients can be used, laid down by European law, but also applicable to imported commercially prepared pet foods.

So what actually goes into commercial pet food? ‘Ingredients’ is the general term used for raw materials and additives in pet foods. Typical pet food ingredients include protein sources such as poultry, beef and fish plus vegetables, cereals, vitamins and minerals, all combined according to recipes designed by veterinary nutritionists to create a balanced diet.

Many supermarket type pet foods seem to have ingredients that are easy to criticise: the classic example is “meat and animal derivatives“. This may sound like a vague term, but it’s actually precisely and legally defined in the Animal Feed Regulations 2010. Manufacturers are legally obliged to use this term because it accurately describes what goes into the food. In reality, the term refers to by-products of the human food industry that come from animals slaughtered under veterinary supervision e.g. heart, lung, or muscle meat, which may not be traditionally eaten by people in this country. The ingredients have been inspected and passed as suitable for human consumption, so there’s nothing “low quality” about them.

The term “ash” is also often criticised: after all, who would like a sprinkling of ashes from the fire mixed up in their food? In fact, again, this term is legally defined: it refers to the mineral content of the food and is determined chemically by the burning of the product. It is a legal requirement to include the ash content on a pet food label.

What about more expensive pet food, sometimes called “premium” or “super-premium”? How is this different, and are these diets worth paying for? Such terms are not legally defined, and so they are more of a marketing term than a technical description. Factors include type of ingredients used, quality of ingredients and investment in innovation in the product. “Super premium” diets tend to include specific ingredients, such as particular types of meat, antioxidants for immune support and glucosamine for joint care. If you read the ingredients label yourself, you should be able to see what you are paying for.

What about home-prepared diets? Many people do cook food for their own pets, but you need to be careful: it can be difficult to be sure that you are providing the right balance of nutrients without having a recipe checked by a qualified nutritionist. A simple rule of thumb is that 90% of a pet’s diet should be commercially prepared, with just 10% as extras or treats. This will ensure that your pet does not suffer from any unexpected nutritional deficiencies.

So what’s the ideal food for pets? The answer, as for humans, is that it depends on the individual. Many pets fed on grocery-supplied standard pet food are in excellent health. Others thrive on premium type pet food, sold through pet shops and vet clinics. And some pets do well on a more “natural” type diet, such as home-prepared or “raw” diets. It takes up to six weeks for the effect of a diet to become visible in an animal: if your pets enjoy their daily meals, and have bright eyes, a shiny coat and a muscular, sleek body, then you can be sure that you are feeding a diet that suits them well.

What NOT to feed your cat.

Gizmo eatingClients often ask me what they should feed their cats. It sounds like a simple question, but the answer is far from straight forward. The biggest debate amongst veterinarians at the moment is whether or not a cat should be fed dry food or wet food, or both. Personally, I tend to lean towards wet food as it seems to be the more natural option for a lot of different reasons that I won’t go into in this article. But I don’t necessarily recommend that to all of my clients. My own cat, for example, loves almost any dry diet but seems to hate wet food, so this is clearly not a good option for her. Being fussy creatures by nature, in most cases, the best food for your cat is the one that they will eat. But this isn’t always the case. Read on to see some examples of what NOT to feed your cat…

“I feed my cat only the finest fillet steak! Costs me a fortune, so it must be good for her, right?”

Short and long answer to that one – absolutely not. It’s true that in the world of well-balanced, scientifically formulated complete pet foods, you generally get what you pay for. More expensive foods, on the whole, tend to be of better quality than cheaper ones. But that only applies to complete, well-balanced pet foods. Just because a human food is expensive (ie, humans really like it and therefore are willing to pay a high price for it), doesn’t mean it’s going to do your cat any good at all. Sure, a bit of steak here and there isn’t going to hurt them, but by feeding your cat exclusively the muscle meat of any animal, they will quickly become deficient in a wide range of vitamins and minerals. There is, for example, very little calcium in muscle meat, to name just one. Other expensive human foods can even be dangerous for cats, even in small volumes. So if you ever feel like splashing out on your cat’s diet, put back the caviar and foie gras and ask your vet for their recommendation instead.

“But sometimes all she’ll eat are her treats, so I just give her those!”

The problem with this one is that unless your cat is extremely ill and you’re happy to get them to eat anything at all, this simply isn’t true. Cats are absolute masters when it comes to training their owners at mealtimes. And they’re not stupid. A normal, healthy cat will not starve itself. But they’ll certainly have you believe that they will. A normal cat (again, we’re not talking about sick cats here) who only eats treats, or some rubbish, unbalanced cat food, does so because their owner keeps providing it. Take it away and offer a balanced cat food, and eventually they will eat it. They may make you feel like you are the most horrible human on the planet for denying them their favourite food, but they will eat it. OK, you may have to try a few different flavours before you find one that they won’t argue about with you, but there is a good cat food out there that they will eat. And they will thank you with their good health, though not necessarily in any other way… Look at it another way, if somebody offered you a salad and a chocolate bar, you’d probably choose the chocolate bar. But that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t eat the salad tomorrow if that’s all there was! A word of caution though, if you try to change your cat’s diet, always do so gradually by mixing it in for a few days to avoid stomach upset. And if they really do go for more than 24-48 hours without eating their new food, speak with your vet for advice because it can be dangerous for a cat to not eat for too long and there may be an underlying medical problem that you didn’t know about.

“My cats deserve a special treat, so I give them tuna for dinner every night”

And I’m not talking about a complete and balanced tuna-flavoured cat food here, but tinned tuna for humans. In this case, it’s not the tuna itself that’s the problem (unless of course your cat is unfortunate enough to be allergic to tuna), rather the fact that it is fed as a meal every night. Too much fish can have inappropriate levels of calcium and phosphorus, and could lead to other problems like thiamine deficiency if raw fish is fed too often. There can also be low levels of toxins like mercury in some fish that won’t harm you if eaten occasionally but can build up if eaten in large quantities. It’s also worth noting that it is particularly important not to feed more than just the very occasional small treat of liver, as eating too much liver can cause serious vitamin toxicities. Like most things, moderation is key. Again, you might enjoy eating pizza for dinner every night, but it probably wouldn’t do your body any good. If you’d like to give your cats a treat, try giving them a different treat each time, provided each one is safe and not too high in fat, and give just a small amount of it, not a whole meal’s worth.

“I’m sorry, did you say crisps?”

Of course, there are some human foods that shouldn’t even be fed in moderation. You’d be amazed what some people will admit to feeding their cats as treats ‘because they really seem to like it’. Sure, your cat may love crisps, but they have absolutely no nutritional value for them (or us, really…), and are simply high in salt, fat, and carbohydrates. They may not necessarily hurt them, but they certainly don’t need them, and it’s not difficult to find them a more appropriate snack. Common human foods that probably shouldn’t be fed to cats in any quantity, no matter how much they seem to like them, include sweet or savoury biscuits, processed sandwich meat, and chips among many other things. You could also add milk and cheese to this list, although I haven’t had much luck convincing clients to give these treats up as they are used so commonly. Cats would not and probably should not naturally drink milk, and can in fact be allergic to it, it is only our domestication of them that has created this ‘need’. And then there are things like onions, chocolate, alcohol, tea, coffee, grapes and raisins that can be toxic in even small quantities so these should never be given to cats.

Daisy pinching foodWhether the problem is finding a food that your cat seems to like, your cat constantly crying out for food, or your own overwhelming desire to treat them to something you think is nice, it’s important to remember that as the carer of this domestic animal you are generally in control of your cat’s diet. If your cat is overweight, chances are you’re feeding it too much, no matter how much they tell you they’re starving. If your otherwise normal, healthy cat will only eat the most expensive smoked salmon, it’s because you offered it to them and they decided it was good enough to hold out for. And if you’re unlucky enough to have a cat that hunts you down and cries for a tasty treat even though you know they shouldn’t have it, be strong and walk away, or better yet, try some kind of distraction such as a toy or a good stroke. It’s not always food they’re crying out for, sometimes it’s the attention of being fed. But if it persists, be sure to take them to the vet for a checkup because constantly crying out for food can actually be a sign of hyperthyroidism or other serious illness.

Whatever the cause, if you find yourself with a feline feeding issue, speak with your vet because many times the solution is easier than you think. And remember, just because your cat wants it, doesn’t mean it’s in their best interest to have it!

If you are worried about any specific symptoms your cat may be showing, talk to your Vet or try our Interactive Cat Symptom Guide to help assess how urgent it may be.

Jack and Zac

Joe Inglis BVSc MRCVS is the vet for the One Show, This Morning and BBC Breakfast. He runs his own line of natural pet food called Pet’s Kitchen.

Owning a dog is much more than simply looking after a pet to many people. To many owners dogs are literally one of the family and are involved in all aspects of family life, from everyday activities to holidays, travel and even, in some cases, work.

In my case my dog Jack is not just very much at the heart of the family he’s also at the heart of my pet food business Pets’ Kitchen. Our original brand of dog food, Joe & Jack’s, was named after him and he played a significant role in developing the recipe through tasting and approving various different versions during the testing phase of development. And even now we have moved on to develop a new range of food which doesn’t bear his name, he’s still very much involved in the whole taste testing and recipe development process. Jack comes into work at Pets’ Kitchen with me when I’m not in the surgery and spends his days patrolling the warehouse hovering up stray biscuits and generally keeping an eye on his pet food empire!

Having such a close relationship with my own dog definitely helps me empathise with clients at work who feel equally strongly about their own canine companions, especially when things get difficult. At times like these empathising with the owners can help me understand what they are going through and be more sensitive in how I approach their case, but it also has its downside as I can share their sadness and stress when cases don’t turn out as hoped.

A recent case involving a dog called Zac really affected me deeply as the dog was very similar in many ways to Jack – a middle aged collie-cross dog with plenty of character and a slightly shaggy black and white coat. His owners, Meg and Peter, had been coming to the surgery with Zac since he was a puppy and even though I’d only started looking after Zac a year or so ago I quickly developed a close bond with both patient and owners and was always very happy to see Zac bounding into the surgery for his boosters every year.

A few months ago however I had to see Zac in very different circumstances. Meg brought him in looking very worried, and after saying hello to Zac, who was his usual energetic self, I asked her what the problem was.

‘I’ve found a lump in his neck,’ she answered, her voice quavering slightly.

My heart sank at this news as I immediately thought of lymphoma, a particularly unpleasant form of cancer that tends to affect collies more commonly than other breeds and typically causes lumps in the neck. And as soon as I felt under Zac’s chin my worst fears were realised as I felt two firm, golf ball sized lumps.

Breaking the news that I suspected that Zac had cancer was very difficult indeed and Meg was devastated – as I would have been had it been Jack. Over the next couple of months we confirmed the diagnosis with a biopsy and then started treatment with a cocktail of chemotherapy drugs. Thankfully Zac has responded really well and the lumps in his neck have all but disappeared, which is an immense relief to all concerned – although we are all aware that this is likely to be remission rather than cure.

Being a vet is always challenging and often difficult – but cases like this one which feel so close to my own pets and family are always the hardest to deal with of all.

If you are worried about a lump or any other symptoms your dog may have, contact your vet or use our interactive Dog Symptom Guide to help you decide what to do next.

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